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Dark to daylight

The one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina finds pockets of progress mingled with miles of destruction. "This isn't about nails and hammers, it's about families that need to go home"

Dark to daylight

NEW ORLEANS - On a sweltering August morning in downtown New Orleans, Harrah's Casino is doing brisk business. It's only 11 a.m. on a Tuesday, but already dozens of gamblers are sipping tiny cocktails and pushing blue chips across green poker tables. On the casino's south end, rows of patrons sit under glittering lights holding cold beers and pulling silver levers on gaudy slot machines with names like "Money to Burn."

Across the street in a gutted office with brown shag carpeting, Tobey Pitman doesn't have money to burn, but he does have scores of people to help. Pitman operated a Southern Baptist homeless shelter in New Orleans for nearly 30 years until Hurricane Katrina largely dispersed the city's chronically homeless population last year (see "Storm shelter," April 15, 2006).

The shelter has since closed, but Pitman now heads the denomination's recovery and rebuilding efforts for what he calls "the new homeless" in a city that-on its first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina-finds little to celebrate. "New Orleans is still crippled," he says.

One year after Hurricane Katrina ripped into the Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, bringing one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history, the rest of the region is still crippled as well. Pockets of progress mingle with miles of destruction in both Louisiana and Mississippi, while thousands wait and wonder if they'll ever go home.

Along Mississippi's ransacked coastline, empty lots stretch for miles where hundreds of homes once stood. Statewide, Katrina destroyed some 68,000 houses and significantly damaged another 55,000. In most areas, little debris is left: FEMA has spent more than $1 billion to haul away nearly 45 million cubic yards of debris in the state, and the removal project is 97 percent complete.

That project has left Mississippi's coastal regions remarkably cleaner, but painfully barren. Some areas look as if they were never inhabited. In smaller towns like Pass Christian only a handful of gas stations and markets have re-opened. Libraries and schools remain abandoned. Century-old tombstones lie broken and toppled in weed-infested cemeteries. Beaches remain empty and closed for swimming, with signs warning of remaining storm debris in the water.

Larger cities like Biloxi and Gulfport have seen more progress: Businesses are rebuilding, and local officials say developers from across the country are interested in investing in the coast's revival. Five of the region's 12 casinos have reopened. The state has allocated $600 million to replace major bridges washed out in the Bay St. Louis and Biloxi bays, and work is scheduled to begin soon.

At a recent "Governor's Recovery Expo" in Gulfport, Gov. Haley Barbour called the region's progress "incredible. . . . And the difference between August the 30th of 2005 and today is literally the difference between daylight and dark."

But more than 100,000 Mississippians are stuck in twilight, displaced and living in government trailers, according to FEMA. Some are clustered in parks on barren patches of land or vacant parking lots. Some units sit on homeowners' empty property next to mini-shrines made from small remnants of their homes: a bathtub here, a small portion of a staircase there.

Even for homeowners who have the money to rebuild, severe labor shortages have left many waiting on contractors and electricians for months. Others are unsure about new building codes and the rising cost of insurance. Thousands more don't have the resources to rebuild and are still waiting to find out how much help they'll receive.

Congress recently approved a grant program that will award homeowners up to $150,000 to rebuild their homes in Louisiana and Mississippi. (Award amounts are based on each home's pre-Katrina value and the damage sustained.) Most eligible Mississippians should receive checks by the end of the month, according to the governor. Louisiana residents may have to wait months while their state agency processes applications.

Insurance settlements have been less certain. Scores of homeowners didn't have flood insurance, and some agencies aren't paying for large portions of damage they say were flood-induced. Homeowners have argued that wind caused most of the damage to their property, and many are taking their cases to court.

Similar insurance headaches also plague residents of Louisiana, along with a dizzying set of other dire problems. If large swaths of Mississippi look painfully barren a year later, large swaths of New Orleans look painfully the same.

In New Orleans workers have hauled off abandoned cars and restored electricity to most of the city, but the hardest-hit areas of town remain largely untouched. The smell of mold lingers in the Ninth Ward, where residents are still gutting their homes. Miles of houses in the Lower Ninth lie crumpled and rotting. Power lines crisscross barren streets and many traffic lights remain dead-exactly as they were a year ago. The National Guard even patrols some uninhabited areas as it did just after the storm.

Just east in St. Bernard Parish, more homes appear salvageable, but few residents have returned. FEMA trailers sit in some driveways, but street after street remains abandoned.

Unlike Mississippi, mounds of debris remain in New Orleans. Though FEMA has removed some 42 million cubic yards of debris in Louisiana, more than 17 million cubic yards remain in five New Orleans parishes. Local squabbles over where to deposit the remaining debris have slowed the cleanup, leaving piles of furniture, clothing, appliances, and insulation baking in front yards.

City officials recently announced plans to demolish some unsalvageable homes, but so far workers have only removed a handful of houses. Demolition remains a politically sensitive subject, with many residents protesting the removal of some of the worst destruction out of fear that no plans to rebuild are in place.

Hoping to stave off demolition, some homeowners have spray-painted messages directly onto their houses next to FEMA markings: "DO NOT DEMOLISH" pleas are often accompanied with cell-phone numbers and other contact information visible from the street.

Other messages reveal evacuees' deeper sentiments: On an empty street in St. Bernard Parish a gutted house bears the spray-painted message: "Damn Katrina." Across the street and two houses down another family has scrawled a different perspective on their swollen front door: "Saved by God."

Pam Davis shares that perspective. On a rainy Wednesday night in Long Beach, Miss., Davis stands behind a long folding table in a small mess hall holding back tears and telling volunteers from First Presbyterian Church of Gulfport (FPG) what their help repairing her home has meant to her: "You've given me hope."

For Davis, that's a remarkable gift. The Memphis native moved to Gulfport last year after an agonizing 2003 tragedy: Davis' 30-year-old daughter, Jennifer Braddock, was shot to death by an ex-boyfriend in front of the couple's 6-year-old son. The murderer, who had been stalking Braddock, killed two others before killing himself.

Davis spent the next two years fighting to toughen Tennessee's stalking laws, and succeeded last year when the state legislature passed the Jennifer Braddock Act, significantly increasing jail time for criminals who violate protective orders.

Soon after the bill's passage, Davis moved to Gulfport with her son and grandson to leave the hardships of Memphis behind. Two months later, Katrina struck. Davis' house filled with five feet of water, and everything inside was destroyed. "I couldn't believe it," she told WORLD.

Davis didn't have flood insurance and received limited help from FEMA. She scrambled for additional help at agencies around town, but made little progress. Depressed and despondent, Davis hit rock bottom. "I thought there were no good people left in the world," she says. Then she heard about Camp Hope, the recovery effort of First Presbyterian. She applied for help, and soon "good people showed up," she says. "They came to help and they came to listen."

Volunteers gutted Davis' home and began overhauling her house from the inside out. More volunteers arrived from churches all over the country to help Davis and others like her through FPG. Five months later, Davis says her home is nearly finished. "They let me pick out my cabinets today," she beams.

Cabinets and fixtures and drywall cost money, but Davis says interacting with volunteers who care about her has given her something money can't buy. "They've restored my faith," she says. "If it weren't for these people I don't think I would have made it."

That's a sentiment Jean Larroux has grown accustomed to hearing. The pastor of Lagniappe Presbyterian Church in Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of the hardest-hit towns, says people are desperate for help and compassion. "For a community to really be restored, homes have to be rebuilt and people have to be loved," he says.

A Bay St. Louis native who lived in Memphis before the storm, Larroux quickly moved his family back to his hometown to start a church that would help with restoration.

Off the town's main drag, a blue-and-white sign next to a renovated warehouse advertises, "Water Fun: Pools and Spas . . . Open Monday through Saturday." The warehouse is now open seven days a week, but there aren't any pools or spas inside. Instead, a dozen summer interns process work orders and organize construction supplies for the restoration efforts of Lagniappe, which leased the building in May.

The word lagniappe is a colloquialism that means "something for nothing," says Larroux. "It basically means grace." Volunteer teams demonstrate grace in tangible ways like building sheds for homeowners to store personal property and supplies until their homes are rebuilt. Other teams have stepped onto empty slabs and rebuilt houses from the ground up.

David and Georgette LeBlanc are amazed by the grace they've received. "Nobody did nothing for us until these people came," says David, standing outside his nearly finished three-bedroom home. Katrina destroyed the family's mobile home, and LeBlanc says a neck injury made heavy labor impossible for him. "I'm not supposed to lift more than 10 pounds," he says. "We didn't know what we were going to do."

After applying for help all over town, a volunteer from Lagniappe showed up to assess damage. "I thought, 'I'll never see him again,'" says LeBlanc. Within a week, the volunteer was back with a construction team. Three days later the house was framed.

Georgette LeBlanc proudly gives a tour of her modest new home, which stands nearly six feet off the ground. She looks forward to moving out of the tiny FEMA trailer she shares with her husband and two sons, and points to where things will go in her new home. "I still can't believe it," she says. "It's such a blessing."

Lagniappe raises funds and accepts lots of donated materials to help with the work, but a tearful Larroux says the church is doing something that neither the government nor money can do. "Money can't cry with people," he says. "Money can't say 'I'm sorry,' and money can't say, 'I'll pray with you.'"

Back in New Orleans, Tobey Pitman says Southern Baptists also hope to do what money can't do by establishing a long-term presence in communities. The denomination has established an outstanding reputation for immediate disaster relief but, as Pitman says, "We never had a Plan B."

Pitman now leads volunteer efforts to build houses in hard-hit areas, while connecting homeowners to local churches that will follow up on spiritual needs. The effort-dubbed Operation NOAH-can house up to 500 volunteers on the third floor of the World Trade Center downtown, which is equipped with beds, showers, and a kitchen.

Pitman says the operation aims to build 1,000 houses in two years, but red tape often slows the work. For example, volunteer electricians from outside certain parishes can't wire homes. Residents must wait for an electrician licensed in their parish, which can take weeks or even months.

Still, Pitman says Operation NOAH is determined to stick with homeowners until projects are completed: "This isn't about nails and hammers, it's about families that need to go home."

A few miles away in the Ninth Ward, pastor James Willis wonders if the families from his church will ever come home. Willis is the pastor of Carver Desire Baptist Church and directs an association of evangelical churches in the Ninth Ward that works closely with Desire Street Ministries (see below).

Thousands of residents from the poverty-stricken Ninth Ward and other devastated areas of New Orleans remain in trailer parks and temporary housing units in cities across the country. Willis says his parishioners are reluctant to come back to a neighborhood still in ruins. Rent has gone up as much as three times in other neighborhoods, making a return to the city impossible for many.

Willis serves as a lifeline to the scattered members of his church, keeping them updated on the area, which has been stricken with poverty, crime, and poor living conditions for years. Often it's hard to know what to say, but the signs aren't good: piles of debris, boarded-up housing projects, a dearth of city services, and grass standing three feet tall in medians make Willis think: "They want this community to fail."

The pastor says housing authorities and city officials have said nothing about their long-term plans for the area, but Willis is determined to fight. He attends city meetings and talks with developers about "what we want this community to look like."

For those who wonder why Ninth Ward residents want to return so badly, Willis says the community is filled with "multi-generational, unbreakable ties." Despite the hardships, it's simply home. Ultimately, he says, only those from the Crescent City can understand Louis Armstrong's lament: "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?"

New Desire

When Hurricane Katrina flooded the Ninth Ward last year, the future looked grim for Desire Street Ministries (DSM), a Christian, urban renewal ministry. But DSM managed to keep its academy for boys open, leasing a camp in Florida for the 2005-2006 school year ("Homecoming on hold," Oct. 22, 2005).

Nearly 100 students will return to the academy at its new home in Baton Rouge Aug. 28, where DSM purchased a shuttered church building and an adjacent school facility. DSM assistant director Ben McLeish says the campus will likely house the academy for the next few years, and more than 50 boys will live in dorms on site.

While DSM waits to see what will happen in the Ninth Ward, McLeish says the ministry is exploring opportunities in additional cities. DSM launched a new urban ministry near a large housing project in Birmingham, Ala., this summer with Reformed Theological Seminary graduate Brian Kelly and his family. McLeish says that DSM will explore more cities this fall, and that he's excited to "find out what the Lord has up His sleeve."

Jamie Dean

Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for the Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.